Berlinale 2022 review: Grand Jeté (Isabelle Stever)

“The film interrogates the theme of lust and carnal rage, forming it into this dark and haunting psychological drama that dares to court controversy for the sake of exploring the deepest recesses of the human condition.”

“My heart, your skin, your bones… we all get what we deserve”

These chilling words occur at a pivotal moment in Grand Jeté, the ambitiously unsettling psychological drama by veteran filmmaker Isabelle Stever, which tells the story of a woman who reunites with her son that she previously had given to her own mother to raise, so that she would be able to pursue her career as a dancer and ballet teacher. Years later she attempts to assimilate back into the boy’s life and make up for lost time, only to realize that the baby she left behind is now a full-grown man and that she has yet to learn what motherhood entails; especially when her mental state precludes her from anything but apathy to the surrounding world, a quality she finds reflected in her offspring. Stever has crafted a challenging, complex character study that is very rarely comfortable, treading the narrow boundary between artistic provocation and outright controversy in looking at a few weeks in the lives of these two individuals who find themselves succumbing to their internal crises of identity, which force them into a position where neither of them expected to find themselves. Yet it is one that feels entirely akin to their inner psychological states, which the director effectively deconstructs throughout this daring and often truly disquieting drama about a deeply troubling mother-son relationship and the roots of their unorthodox desires.

From the first striking frames, we can easily tell that Grand Jeté is a film made by someone who has a steadfast appreciation for the human body. Stever’s camera acts as a tool to capture the most primordial essence of these characters, focusing on a particular body part in nearly every scene (including in the confrontation between the main character and her mother, from which the quote above is extracted), gradually stripping away the layers of the people to whom they belong. The director is particularly interested in recording the body in movement – whether in the spellbinding sequences of the main character dancing or the several other moments where we see bodies in motion, Stever is deeply enamoured with the human composition and how it often tells a story without words. This is reflected in the two main characters, one of them a professional dancer who mangles her body for the sake of her craft, the other a young man who secretly engages in feats of strength and resilience that can only be called sadomasochistic – their existences prove that they believe pain and suffering is worth it for the sake of artistic expression, which they use as a form of non-verbal communication in moments when they cannot find the words. This becomes even more clear as they start to gradually interact, their small gestures and motions eclipsing any spoken words in the development of their haunting relationship, each movement telling a story about these characters and the existential journey they are currently trying to endure.

The physical scars and lacerations we see on these characters throughout Grand Jeté hint at something much deeper, which the film gradually explores as we come to decode the characters and start to understand their motivations. It is not a coincidence that this film is punctuated with discordant musical cues representing the main characters’ gradual breakdown, which contrasts with their stone-faced stoicism that normally conceals deep insecurities and untraditional desires which are only aroused when they attempt to forge the mother-son relationship that should have started at birth but was delayed for many years. The performances by Sarah Nevada Grether and Emil von Schönfels are truly impressive, portraying these characters with precision and earnest conviction in spite of the controversial subject matter. These individuals are negotiating their identity in a modern world, trying to come to terms with their internal quandaries while fending off the encroaching sensation of existential dread – and every sensation of joy, sadness or world-weary despair is captured in their movements and expressions, both actors approaching these characters with a sincerity that helps soften the darker aspects of this narrative.

Throughout Grand Jeté there is a correlation drawn between the “broken” bodies of the two main characters that do not function in the way they are supposed to, and their equally mangled psychological states. This leads to the central theme of the film, desire, which appears in opposition (rather than in symbiosis) to love, a concept that is almost entirely absent from the film for what appear to be intentional reasons. The character of Mario has never been able to feel the love of his mother Nadja, since she was absent for most of his childhood. Her arrival signals the start of what should be an attempt to repair this fragmented relationship but only coalesces in a harrowing depiction of their inner desires manifesting in a way that is socially unacceptable and repulsive. Stever manages to address the theme of forbidden desire without condoning it or even daring to normalize the actions of the main characters, who are aware of the debaucheries in which they are engaging but find themselves too damaged psychologically to shift away from what is the closest they are going to get to an authentic human connection. The audience is kept at an intentional distance, to avoid finding anything that could possibly humanize these characters, with the director instead choosing a more objective depiction of their controversial relationship and their tendency to master the art of keeping secrets.

Grand Jeté functions primarily as a hypnotic deconstruction of the human psyche, which attempts an extensive investigation of unconventional desires and the people who willingly engage in activities that are prohibited, whether legally or by social conventions. This film has a very contentious relationship with morality, and it pushes the boundaries to the point where Grand Jeté can appear quite uncomfortable. However, if we can overcome the unsettling subject matter that borders on being taboo and focus instead on the nuances between these moments, we find that Stever has crafted a soulful character study of two wayward souls lost in a hostile and unforgiving world, where they find themselves radically veering off the course of morality to make sense of their surroundings, finding solace in expressing themselves physically. Whether this is through their artistic endeavours, or their moments of carnal desire that occur behind closed doors, the film interrogates the theme of lust and carnal rage, forming it into this dark and haunting psychological drama that dares to court controversy for the sake of exploring the deepest recesses of the human condition.